Archaeoastronomy (also spelled Archeoastronomy) is the study of ancient or traditional astronomies in their cultural context, utilizing archaeological and anthropological evidence. It is closely associated with sister disciplines Ethnoastronomy, the study of astronomical practice in contemporary societies and Historical Astronomy, the use of historical records of heavenly events to answer astronomical problems. Another similar discipline is History of Astronomy which uses written records to evaluate prior astronomical traditions.
It is most frequently mentioned with astronomical claims regarding Stonehenge or the pyramids of Egypt.
History of Archaeoastronomy
Archaeoastronomy is arguably almost as old as archaeology itself. Norman Lockyer was arguably the first archaeoastronomer working at the end of the nineteenth century and the start of the twentieth. His studies included an examinations of Egyptian temples in The Dawn of Astronomy in 1894 and of Stonehenge published as Stonehenge and Other British Stone Monuments Astronomically Considered in 1906. Some archaeologists followed. Francis Penrose published extensively in the Transactions of the Royal Society on the astronomical alignment of Greek temples in the Mediterranean in the same period. Archaeoastronomy was, for a while, a respectable subject. The first issue of the archaeological journal Antiquity includes an article on archaeoastronomical research.
In the British Isles interest in archaeoastronomy waned until the 1960s when the astronomer Gerald Hawkins proposed that Stonehenge was a Neolithic computer. Around the same time the engineer Alexander Thom published his survey results of megalithic sites also proposed widespread practice of accurate astronomy in the British Isles. The claims of Hawkins were largely dismissed. However, Thomís work continued to pose a problem. A re-evaluation of Thomís work showed that his claims of high accuracy astronomy were not fully supported by the evidence. Nevertheless there was evidence of widespread interest in astronomy associated with megalithic sites. The response from archaeologists was tepid. A few archaeologists such as Euan MacKie accepted Thomís conclusions and published new prehistories of Britain. However until the early 1980s most archaeoastronomical research in the United Kingdom was concerned with establishing the existence astronomical alignments in prehistoric sites by statistical means rather than the social practice of astronomy in ancient times.
In the New World anthropologists began to more fully consider the role of astronomy in Amerindian societies. This approach had access to sources that the prehistory of Europe lacks such as ethnographies and the historical records of the early colonisers. This allowed New World archaeoastronomers to make claims for motives which in the Old World would have been mere speculation. The concentration on historical data led to some claims of high accuracy comparatively weak when compared to the statistically led investigations in Europe.
This came to a head at an IAU meeting in Oxford in 1981. The methodologies and research questions of the participants were considered so different that the conference proceedings were published as two volumes. Nevertheless the conference was considered a success in bringing researchers together and Oxford conferences continue around four years at locations around the world. The subsequent conferences have resulted in a move to more interdisciplinary approaches with researchers aiming to combine the contextuality of archaeological research, which broadly describes the state of archaeoastronomy today. Rather than merely establishing the existence of ancient astronomies archaeoastronomers seek to explain why people would have an interest in the night sky.